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THE SITUATION ROOM
Valerie Jarrett Interview; Rich on Food Stamps Fact Check; Romney's Unusual Endorsement Chase; President: Middle Class Needs "Fair Share"; FAA Administrator Resigns, Racist NYPD Facebook Page; Newt Gingrich Surges to Double-Digit Lead
Aired December 6, 2011 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, we're putting one of Newt Gingrich's provocative campaign talking points to the test -- are millionaires really getting food stamps?
You're going to find out if the frontrunner has his facts straight.
Plus, unusual twists in Mitt Romney's endorsement chase. He got a controversial former vice president in his corner today.
But is he pushing away Donald Trump?
And a stunning window into racism within the New York City Police Department -- officers accused of calling police animals -- calling people, I should say, animals and savages online for all the world to see.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
But we begin with the news -- we begin with some news that's just developing here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The -- the Donald Trump presidential debate, scheduled for the end of December, Mitt Romney now says he will not -- repeat, not participate.
Here's what he said just a little while ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "YOUR WORLD WITH NEIL CAVUTO," COURTESY FOX NEWS)
NEIL CAVUTO, HOST, "YOUR WORLD": As to this Donald Trump hosted debate, yes or no on that?
MITT President Teddy (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, I'm not participating in that. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. And we just got a statement from Donald Trump. Donald Trump just releasing this statement: "It would seem logical to me that if I was substantially behind in the polls, especially in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, I would be participating in the debate. But I can also understand why Governor Romney decided not to do it."
All right. So there you've the reaction from Donald Trump. Mitt Romney saying no to that debate. He says he's already doing two debates in December. He'll do a few more in January. But will not be in Iowa for that debate that Donald Trump wants to moderate.
We'll have much more on this part of the story coming up.
But exactly four weeks from today, the Republican presidential contenders face the first test that actually counts. We're talking about the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd.
There's more evidence that Newt Gingrich is the candidate to beat. Two brand new polls of Iowa voters show Gingrich -- Gingrich way out in front. An ABC News/"Washington Post" survey puts him 15 points ahead of his nearest rivals, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul tied for second, with 18 percent each. Another survey out today shows Gingrich has soared to the top of the pack in South Carolina, leading Romney with 16 points in -- by 16 points in that early primary state.
As the latest Republican frontrunner, Gingrich is getting a lot more scrutiny than ever. One of his favorite lines in recent weeks certainly got my attention. You noticed that here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday.
It sounds outrageous on the surface -- millionaires, millionaires here in the United States padding their wealth by getting U.S. government food stamps that are designed to help the very, very poor.
Newt Gingrich says that is wrong.
But who can disagree?
Is it true?
We asked Lisa Sylvester to take a closer look -- Lisa.
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.
Well, with the economy the way it is, it is true that more people have been using food stamps. The maximum per person benefit is $130 a month. So we're not talking a lot of money here. But the food program has been criticized by Newt Gingrich. And we took a look at some of his recent statements.
SYLVESTER (voice-over): Talk about a tempest in a tea pot, listen to what Newt Gingrich said on the campaign trail.
NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You don't get food stamps, you get a credit card and the credit card can be used for anything. We've had people take their federal spending money and use it to go to Hawaii. And you don't -- they give food stamps now to millionaires.
SYLVESTER: But is it all true?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Purchases with the food stamp electronic card are strictly limited to food, according to Lou Jacobson with PolitiFact.
LOUIS JACOBSON, STAFF WRITER, POLITIFACT: The food stamp card actually will not let you buy anything. It looks like a credit card. It's called an EBT card. And it's something which, if you take it to the cash register, it will tell you what it can purchase and what it can't purchase.
SYLVESTER: That means you can't use it for a plane ticket to Hawaii or anywhere else. PolitiFact rates that Gingrich statement Pants on Fire.
What about the claim that there are millionaires living off food stamps?
To qualify for food stamps, your net income as an individual must be no more than $11,000. For a family of four, the income cutoff is about $22,000. But that's income.
What about assets?
What if you had a million dollars in the bank and had no income?
Only 13 states use assets as a test for food stamp eligibility. That means it's technically possible for someone with assets of more than a million dollars and with a very low income qualifying for food stamps.
LEROY FICK, LOTTERY WINNER: I feel pretty good about that.
SYLVESTER: One example of that, Leroy Fick. He won $2 million on the Michigan lottery show, "Make Me Rich." But he was still using his state-issued debit card for food stamps.
WNEM reporter Bill Walsh caught up with Fick, who made no apologies.
BILL WALSH, WNEM CORRESPONDENT: This guy made $2 million, driving around in a Audi convertible and he's collecting our tax money on food stamps.
What would you say to those people?
Do you think it's ethical?
FICK: From my point of view, I think so.
SYLVESTER: The USDA acknowledges although possible, it's highly unlikely to find someone in Fick's place.
KEVIN CONCANNON, USDA UNDER SECRETARY: Well, it's hard to imagine somebody having a million in assets without having income at least at the poverty level, if not higher. And as I say, that's why this was so anomalous.
SYLVESTER: The law has been changed in Michigan. Fick is no longer receiving food stamp benefits.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
SYLVESTER: Fick says he was not trying to cheat the state. He says he specifically asked Michigan authorities whether he could continue to use his food stamp card and was told that he could. The USDA says that case is the only one that they are aware of where a millionaire was using food stamps. And the USDA worked with the state to quickly correct the situation -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It is pretty outrageous, when you think about it.
All right, thanks very much.
Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, by the way, will be my guests right here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow. If you have a question for either of these Republican presidential candidates, you can post it on our Facebook page at Facebook.com/cnnsituationroom. You can Tweet me your questions @wolfblitzer CNN. We may use some of your questions tomorrow. My interviews with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich tomorrow, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has a new ally in his fight to reclaim the frontrunner title from Newt Gingrich. We're talking about the former vice president, Dan Quayle. The endorsement in Arizona a little while ago has some people asking, is this what Romney needs right now, an endorsement from Dan Quayle?
Joe Johns has more on Mitt Romney's endorsement chase.
What exactly is going on on this front?
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's really a very interesting story, especially for people who know Dan Quayle from way back. But we have to point out Mitt Romney made a couple of moves today, deciding not to participate in the Donald Trump debate, seen by some as a sign of strength. But tactically, he would have had a lot to lose because Trump is a Tea Party favorite. Romney isn't exactly the number one choice of many Tea Partiers.
His other move was getting the endorsement of former Vice President Dan Quayle, which, when you put it together with all the other support he's started to amass, it says something important about the Romney organization.
JOHNS (voice-over): The laugh track has now faded from the days when Dan Quayle was vice president, though he hasn't exactly moved into the kind of secret weapon the Mitt Romney campaign is looking of right now. Still, you never know how Quayle's endorsement could help, since Arizona is an early voting state and Quayle's son, Ben, happens to be the congressman from the 3rd District there.
What's important is that Quayle adds his name to a long and growing list of Washington establishment types supporting Romney, from California Congressman Jerry Lewis, Ken Calvert, Brian Bilbray; from Tennessee, Jimmy Duncan, Diane Black, Phil Roe; from Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski, all announced in just the last week.
STU ROTHENBERG, "ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT": The cumulative effect of the endorsements could have an impact that helps the Romney campaign and -- and creates doubt about Newt Gingrich. But a single endorsement like Dan Quayle, I just don't think there's enough there to change the dynamic.
JOHNS: Romney's other big move of the day was to announce that he would not sign onto a presidential debate hosted by Donald Trump later this month. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum said yes. Ron Paul and John Huntsman said no. This debate is already getting the late night laugh test.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," COURTESY WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.)
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: Narrating or moderating the next Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump. Yes. Donald Trump. Yes. Apparently Pat Sajak was unavailable.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
President Teddy: I think we have at least 10 requests for January debates. We'll probably do, I don't know two, maybe three in January. So we've already set our calendar in -- in December. And I communicated to Mr. Trump that -- that that -- that schedule is -- is completed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: Trump hasn't endorsed anyone and has even suggested he might still run as an Independent. This debate is controversial because some, like Ari Fleischer, they say allowing a reality show figure to moderate a debate makes politics look too much like a reality show, assuming it isn't already, of course.
ARI FLEISHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I'm glad to see somebody is standing up for not making Donald Trump the center ring of what could be a circus.
That's, I think, where this is all heading when people talk about Donald Trump.
JOHNS: But Trump alone can't be blamed for everything. The morality play that just ended with Herman Cain, polls that put one tough- talking candidate after the next off the island. At least they agree on getting rid of the guy in the White House. Romney is going after Mr. Obama for a holiday trip to Hawaii he hasn't even taken yet.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM IOWA TELE-TOWN HALL HOSTED BY MITT President Teddy, DECEMBER 5, 2011)
President Teddy: And yet he's going off for 17 days for -- for golf in the sun. And I -- I just think it's time to have a president whose idea of -- of being hands-on does not mean getting a better grip on the golf club.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: Again, that statement from Donald Trump, which Wolf just read to you a little while ago here in THE SITUATION ROOM: "It would seem logical to me that if I was substantially behind in the polls," Trump says, "especially in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, I'd be participating in the debate. But I can also understand why Governor Romney decided not to do it."
Wolf, as you know, Mr. Trump has also been pretty complimentary of Romney, even sort of giving explanations for what people would call his flip-flops or changes in position, saying only stupid people are the people who do not change their minds.
BLITZER: Donald Trump will be joining me here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Thursday. So we'll discuss this and a lot more with him, as well.
Joe, thanks very much.
President Obama is trying a new way to position himself against his Republican opponent, whoever that might turn out to be. He went to Kansas -- Kansas -- to deliver a populist message and borrow a page from a popular Republican, President Teddy Roosevelt.
Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin -- Jessica, tell our viewers how all of this unfolded.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama went to the same town in Kansas where former Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, as you point out, delivered a speech about wealth and equality more than 100 years ago.
And in this speech, the president also borrowed from a theme that we hear from the protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
YELLIN (voice-over): It's a theme the president's team would like to help define the campaign.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share.
YELLIN: He rolled it out in a speech on wealth inequality.
OBAMA: For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying of for too many people.
YELLIN: The target?
Regular working Americans.
OBAMA: This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make or break moment for the middle class and for all of those who are fighting to get into the middle class.
YELLIN: The president tried to align himself with anyone who dislikes the bank bailout.
OBAMA: As infuriating as it was for all of us, we rescued our major banks from collapse. Part of the deal was that we wouldn't go back to business as usual.
YELLIN: All these threads are a familiar echo from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which the same day staged sit-ins across the nation inside foreclosed homes. These activists want to see action.
JULIEN HARRISON, OCCUPY WALL STREET MOVEMENT: What we're doing out here is we're launching the Occupied Real Estate Service. And what our message is, is foreclose on the banks, not on the American people.
YELLIN: The president's words aren't enough for them.
GLORIA JETTER, OCCUPY WALL STREET MOVEMENT: I want the banks to stop foreclosures.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
YELLIN: Now, Wolf, they're not the primary audience for the president's message. For those folks, though, this could -- for the president, it could become a problem if this Occupy Wall Street movement gets organized around the housing issue, because the president himself cannot stop the banks from foreclosing on properties.
But the main message here for the -- from the president is that he has taken the Occupy Wall Street message and, in a sense, repackaged it for a broader audience.
And what you're seeing in a larger frame is that the Republicans on the campaign trail are trying to focus the campaign on the here and now, on the economy and how folks are doing right now, how President Obama has performed in office right now.
And the president is pushing back and trying to make this campaign and the election on a different issue, on where he and the American people would like the economy to go, on a competing vision for where he sees America in the future. And that's what this speech was about today. Defining his vision of where America should be in the future and defining a different course for this debate to take in the campaign -- Wolf.
BLITZER: So this speech basically today laid out his themes that we're going to be hearing a lot more of over the course of the coming months?
YELLIN: Absolutely and into the 2012 campaign right up through November -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good. All right, Jessica, thanks very much.
And Valerie Jarrett, now, arguably the president's closest adviser and a long-term adviser, she'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM live. We'll discuss this and a lot more with Valerie Jarrett, this hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Also, other news, including New York City police officers linked to racist rants online, describing people they're supposed to protect as, quote, "animals."
Then Republicans debate Newt Gingrich's checkered political past. Angry critics within his own party are coming back to haunt the Republican frontrunner.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jack Cafferty is here with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The implosion of Herman Cain's campaign seems to be just one more thing working in favor of Newt Gingrich and against Mitt Romney. Since Cain suspended his campaign over this past weekend, it appears that Gingrich has been the beneficiary of a good amount of Cain's former support.
Gallup polling shows that over the last month as Cain's support went from 22 percent to zero when he suspended his campaign, Gingrich's support climbed from 13 percent to 37 percent. That is a whopping 24- point jump. At the same time, Mitt Romney's support remains steady, 22 percent over the same period of time.
Overall, the first ever Gallup daily tracking poll in this race shows that Gingrich now leads Romney nationwide by 15 points, 37 percent to 22. Gingrich's 37 percent, the highest Gallup measured this year for any candidate. Plus, Gingrich tops Romney in a lot of various categories. His lead especially large among conservative Republicans and Tea Party supporters.
Gingrich also fares better than Romney in every age group, among both men and women, and in every region of the country. He is particularly strong in the Midwest and the south. Meanwhile, the Gallup Poll shows all the rest of the candidates are in single digits, that includes Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman.
Now, once the voting starts in about four weeks in Iowa in the Republican primaries and caucuses, it's clear a lot of these campaigns wilt come to an end pretty quickly once the money dries up, but why wait? The handwriting is already on the wall for several Republican candidates.
So, here's our question, now that Herman Cain is out of the race, who else ought to drop out? That's when you put up the question is when I say here's the question. There you go. Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post comment on my blog or go to our post on the SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.
BLITZER: Get ready, Jack. You're going to get a lot of reaction.
As a new development happening right now involving the FAA, let's go to Lisa Sylvester. She's got the news for us -- Lisa.
SYLVESTER: Yes. Wolf, this information is just coming in. FAA administrator, Randy Babbitt, has submitted his resignation. He has resigned. We have a statement that we just received from him.
He said, quote, "Today, I submitted my resignation to Secretary Ray LaHood, and it has been accepted. Serving as FAA administrator has been an absolute honor and the highlight of my professional career, but I'm unwilling to let anything cast a shadow on the outstanding work done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by my colleagues at the FAA. They run the finest and safest aviation system in the world and I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to work alongside them."
"I am confident in their ability to successfully carry out all the critical safety initiatives under way and the improvements that the FAA has planned. I also want to thank Secretary Ray LaHood for his leadership and dedication to the safety of the traveling public."
You know, Randy Babbitt, of course, he was arrested last Saturday night in Fairfax City, Virginia on a DWI charge. He was allegedly driving down the wrong side of the road at the time of his arrest. And earlier today, Secretary LaHood explained how he learned of this arrest.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAY LAHOOD, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: What I told Randy is, I was very disappointed in the way that I learned about this.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you learn about it?
LAHOOD: From a press release from Fairfax County.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SYLVESTER: That was about more than 24 hours, in fact, before the White House and before officials with the administration actually found out directly what had happened, that he was arrested. So, we will continue to monitor this situation, Wolf.
BLITZER: Driving under intoxication. All right, under the influence, as they say. Not a good idea, especially if you're head of the FAA. Thanks very much, Lisa, for that.
Meanwhile, new backlash against the New York City Police Department over very disturbing racially charged Facebook rants allegedly posted by some police officers. Let's bring CNNs Mary Snow. She's in New York. She has the details -- Mary.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these Facebook rants are troubling enough that they've now prompted a probe by NYPD's internal affairs unit. The postings come with some warnings, including one that read, "This is not a racist rant. This is about us, the cops."
SNOW (voice-over): It was a parade of Facebook postings about the Annual West Indian-American Day parade that have led to an internal investigation of some of New York City's police officers. Let the government handle those animals read one post on a Facebook page where officers ranted about having to work at the parade which has had violent incidents in the past. "A day at the zoo" read one post, along with, "maybe next year, they should hold it on Rikers Island."
(on-camera) The Facebook postings first came to light in an unrelated gun possession case right here in Brooklyn. A public defender in case says he was researching the arresting officer and that's when he found the page about the West Indian Day parade.
BENJAMIN MOORE, BROOKLYN DEFENDER SERVICES: What caught my attention was his membership in this group called "No More West Indian Day" detail.
SNOW: What are some of the first words that jumped out at you when you saw that Facebook page?
MOORE: Animals, savages, things of an incredibly bigoted and hateful nature.
SNOW (voice-over): Public defender, Benjamin Moore, says the online rant disappeared after a couple of days. He used it in the trial, and the arresting officer reportedly testified he didn't write anything on the page, but Moore made a digital copy of 70 pages worth of Facebook comments that he's released now that the trial is over.
"The New York Times" broke the story and reports it down that more than 150 people checked, more than 60 percent match names of police officers. It also makes it clear it's impossible to no true identities online. The public defender's office says, it welcomes an internal investigation by the NYPD.
LISA SCHREIBERSDORF, BROOKLYN DEFENDER SERVICES: I think it's important for the police to have an opportunity to look into attitudes that may be pervasive in the police department. And we felt that this was the best way to make sure that they had all the information so that they could look into it.
SNOW (on-camera): And Wolf, the NYPD had no further comment beyond saying it's conducting an internal investigation. The Police Benevolent Association also had no comment. We did reach out to some of the officers named, but we're unsuccessful in getting replies -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Mary, thanks very much.
We listened to President Obama's speech today out in Kansas. We thought we heard a direct swipe at Newt Gingrich's recent remarks that child labor laws in United States are, quote, "stupid." We'll talk about that with the president's senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett. She's here in the SITUATION ROOM standing by.
And the U.S. ambassador to Syria returns to Damascus amid a brutal government crackdown. What's going on? We'll tell you what we know.
BLITZER: President Obama today laid out his vision of a nation where the middle class gets its fair share, drawing a sharp line between his approach and that of his critics, especially the Republicans. We're joined now by Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser to the president. She's joining us from the briefing room. Valerie, thanks very much for coming in.
VALERIE JARRETT, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRES. OBAMA: My pleasure, Wolf, good evening.
Good evening. Here's a line that certainly jumped out at me when I heard the president say it. Let me play it for you and our viewers.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Was that a swipe at Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential frontrunner who, in recent days, has said maybe child labor laws should be changed so that young kids in poor neighborhoods could work as janitor's helpers, if you will?
JARRETT: It wasn't a swipe. It was an opportunity to remind the American people, give it historical context, for where we are as a country and where we want to go. And there's nothing I think better than to look at history to say over 100 years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt gave a bold speech about the pivotal choices that we have as a country.
And the president wanted to do the same thing today where he can talk about fairness, where we can talk about balance, where we can talk about the American dream, really coming true for everybody.
And what we've seen over the last several years in our country is increasing disparity between those of the very top of the income (ph) who are very wealthy, and their incomes and their investments have grown dramatically and the rest of the country is struggling. So, it's a speech to really provide a historical context for that, Wolf. BLITZER: So, it's just a coincidence. He wasn't thinking of Newt Gingrich in his controversial remarks?
JARRETT: I assure you --
BLITZER: We, certainly, have generated a lot of commotion over the past few days.
JARRETT: I assure you he was not. I think that if you listen closely and if you read the speech, it was a terrific speech that Teddy Roosevelt gave. He talked about the importance of the eight-hour workweek. He talked about minimum wages for women, talked about making sure that we have unemployment insurance.
The safety net that makes our country so great and that is so important and distinguishes us from countries all across the world. I think that if you listen closely and you read the speech, it was a terrific speech that Teddy Roosevelt gave. He talked about the importance of the eight-hour workweek, he talked about minimum wages for women, talked about making sure that we have unemployment insurance, the safety net that makes our country so great, and that is so important and distinguishes us from countries all across the world.
And this is the choice that the American people have before them. And the president wanted to really stake out his vision for the country and take a step back and remind us of the fact that that vision is really grounded in our roots and our history.
BLITZER: You know, Newt Gingrich also calls President Obama the food stamp president, and says this -- I'll play this little clip from the former Speaker.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Just look at the record. More people have gotten on food stamps under Barack Obama than any other president in American history.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: When he calls him the food stamp president, do you see that as an insult?
JARRETT: Look, I can't really comment on what Newt Gingrich is thinking. What I can say is that our country has gone through a very tough time, the toughest time since the last -- the Great Depression. And what's been very important is that we provide that safety net, whether it's unemployment insurance, whether it's food stamps, whether it's making sure that those who are most vulnerable have a bridge through these difficult times.
That's why the president was fighting so hard -- is fighting so hard for the American Jobs Act. The payroll tax that's currently being debated before Congress, if it isn't extended, every family on average is going to have $1,000 less in their pocket. So, at a time when the Republicans are taking a pledge, saying that they don't believe in raising taxes on the wealthy to help pay for benefits for the rest, but they are willing to raise taxes on the middle class, they are willing to say on January 1 that you're going to have $1,000 less to pay for food and groceries and your rent and so many of the basics that the American people are struggling so hard for right this minute. So I think today was a great opportunity to take a step back and remind us about what makes America so great.
BLITZER: I just want to be precise on this. If the Republicans hold firmly to their position they're not going to raise taxes on even millionaires -- and there's every indication they will hold firmly to this -- what is plan B in making sure that millions, tens of millions of Americans, continue to have that payroll tax cut, $1,000, $1,500 a year, which they desperately, obviously need? Are you going to make a concession and say, all right, we're not going to raise taxes on the rich?
JARRETT: Well, this is a matter of math. I mean, how do you pay for it? And what the president has said is, we need to have a fiscally responsible plan.
Everything in the American Jobs Act had a way for paying for it. It was a modest increase on the wealthiest Americans in order so that everybody else could have a little bit of extra money in their pocket during these tough economic times. That's the president's plan.
And so what we're going to do between now and the end of the year is we're going to push very, very hard. We're going to ask the American people to get educated, understand what's at stake here, and what the president has called on is for Congress to act. And that's what we expect them to do. Otherwise -- and that's why we have the clock up here in the White House -- time is wasting.
Come January 1, average Americans are going to lose $1,000. That is unacceptable.
BLITZER: Here's an idea. It's not original to me, but I'll throw it out. You want to pay for the tax cuts for the middle class? How about slowing down $2 billion a week going to Afghanistan, more than $120 billion a year? You could pay for the tax cut simply by doing that.
JARRETT: Well, you know what? We're going to leave it to the experts to figure out the resources that we need to fight a war against terrorism, to fight al Qaeda, and to make sure that we keep America safe.
But I think if you go around the country, as we have, Wolf, and talk directly to the American people, what they are looking for is fairness, they're looking for equity, they're looking for balance. And I think it isn't asking too much for those who have benefited so greatly for our country to pay just a little bit more so that people who will go out and spend that $1,000 and jolt the economy, which will help not just themselves, but will help the economy overall, why not allocate our resources that way? And so the president has taken his message directly to the American people. Overwhelmingly, they support the American Jobs Act. Overwhelmingly, they're calling not just, Wolf, for the extension of the payroll tax credit, but also the unemployment insurance, which will also lapse come January 1, two vitally important benefits to help keep our economy going and to make us strong again.
BLITZER: Valerie Jarrett, thanks very much for coming in.
JARRETT: You're welcome. Have a great evening.
BLITZER: Good luck.
JARRETT: Thank you.
BLITZER: The U.S. ambassador to Syria is returning to Damascus amid a brutal government crackdown. Ahead, the message the United States says it wants to send by sending back Robert Ford to Damascus.
BLITZER: A damning investigation into the worse U.S. mine disaster in 40 years.
Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
What's going on?
SYLVESTER: Hi, Wolf.
Well, today, the federal agency in charge of mine safety released a scathing report on the deadly disaster at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine. It says last year's massive explosion happened after methane ignited a dangerous buildup of coal dust.
The report blames mine operators for creating those unsafe conditions and repeatedly violating numerous federal safety laws. Mine owners will pay a $209 million settlement to avoid prosecution. And the families of the 29 killed miners will get a $1.5 million each.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford headed back to Damascus today after leaving in October over security concerns. Ford's outspoken criticism of Syria's anti-democracy crackdown angered the regime, and government supporters attacked the embassy and Ford's convoy. The U.S. State Department says Ford's return to Damascus sends the message that the U.S. stands in solidarity with the Syrian people.
And yesterday we told you how U.S.-built Toyota Camrys are being exported to South Korea. Now an even hotter export, chopsticks. An American businessman in Georgia is producing four million sets of the wooden utensils every week, and every single one of them is being set to China and Japan. And business is so good, that his Georgia chopsticks factory is set to expand by 800 employees next week.
So he's doing very well, helping the export and helping our trade deficit.
BLITZER: Is there something unusual about those Georgia chopsticks? Are they exclusive? Are they decorative? Or what?
SYLVESTER: I bet -- and I'm just guessing here, but I bet in China and Japan, it's probably the exclusive thing, to have the U.S.-made one. Everybody always likes something that they can't get. It's a rare commodity.
BLITZER: Who knew?
SYLVESTER: So who knew?
BLITZER: Georgia chopsticks. All right. Great. Thanks very much.
SYLVESTER: I'll get a pair for you.
Newt Gingrich, he's the surging Republican presidential front-runner, versus Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker of the '90s. Are they the same person?
BLITZER: More dramatic polls fueling Newt Gingrich's fierce momentum right now at the very front of the Republican presidential pack.
Let's talk about this and more with our CNN contributor Dana Loesch and our Republican strategist, Terry Holt.
Guys, thank very much for coming in.
Terry, what is your biggest problem with Newt Gingrich?
TERRY HOLT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, you know, I like this Newt Gingrich that with we have seen over the last few weeks, this gutsy debater, this gifted public speaker, but there's vastly more to Newt Gingrich. And if you look at his speakership in the 1990s, he was a divisive, bombastic figure. His speakership was plagued with scandal and intrigue. There was a coup do depose him at one point.
And so, the differences here are very stark. And if we're going to nominate Newt Gingrich to be our nominee, we have to come to terms with the fact that Newt was very unpopular. And if we're going to beat Barack Obama, let's be honest, even if he's unpopular in his approval, and disapproval numbers are low, the American people ultimately want to like Barack Obama. And I worry that with the two faces of Newt, the American people won't have that same view of the former Speaker.
BLITZER: You have some issues, Dana, with Mitt Romney. What are your biggest problems with the other Republican front-runner, shall we call him? DANA LOESCH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, exactly. And like Terry, I think Mitt Romney is a very amiable person. He comes across in a very nice way, but I'm not quite sure when -- he goes on the campaign trail and he says really great conservative things, sometimes, but we never exactly know which Mitt Romney is speaking.
And he touts his small business record, and he acts as though he's a champion of the economy, except when he was governor of Massachusetts, he left his predecessor with a budget deficit of about a billion dollars. And that's huge. That's huge.
Not to mention, he increased taxes in Massachusetts by way of fees on some services that Massachusetts residents couldn't get away from. So there's a lot of differences between what he says and what he does.
HOLT: You know, I want to distinguish. I'm not here to attack one or the other of these candidates. That seemed to me just a direct attack on Mitt Romney. I think that this exercise --
LOESCH: I'm pointing out his record.
HOLT: And you're a surrogate for someone, but in this case --
LOESCH: No, I'm actually an Independent.
HOLT: -- whoever we nominate will have to bring real bona fide leadership credentials to the table. And in the case of the Speaker, he was the angry foil to Bill Clinton in the '90s, and it was very easy to paint him into a corner.
I have read the clips, and I see that Newt Gingrich has successfully demonstrated that he has changed. But if the Republicans are going to be united behind the right candidate -- first of all, I think both of them are pretty conservative -- they will have to overcome not just differences in policies, but that ability to be electable and beat Barack Obama. And that's one of the things that is to Newt's disadvantage, in my view, not his policies or the way he's taken positions on the issues.
I have to defend myself against what Mr. Holt said. I take offense at him suggesting that simply pointing out Mitt Romney's record, which is public, by the way, as somehow an attack on a candidate, if we're not going to be vetting these candidates by pointing out the obvious facts, what are we doing in politics? Why are we even having an election? That's what we're doing.
HOLT: No, I think it's about a difference in --
BLITZER: Let her finish, Terry.
LOESCH: And if candidates are too sensitive for that, then I think they should get into a different industry. Politics is about vetting candidates. Politics is about seeing who wins. And whichever candidate wins, that agenda gets to go forward. And I think grassroots conservatives have absolutely every right to question not just the top-tier candidates, but all candidates. And I think that certain Republicans need to get over it, because it's not going to stop anytime soon.
HOLT: I'm not questioning the grassroots or the movement's ability to vet the candidates. I absolutely think that's what this has been about. My point is that all of us can be united around trying to elect someone as an alternative, a conservative alternative to Barack Obama. And he has some distinct political advantages that we need to be weary of as we choose our nominee.
BLITZER: Dana, who is the bigger, shall we say, flip-flopper? Because both of them have been accused of flip-flopping on so many issues. Would it be Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney?
LOESCH: You know, it's -- I look at it this way -- I'm all about redemption, too. I think both of them have a lot of waffling in their backgrounds, and I also think it's important that when someone does be redemptive of past transgressions towards conservative principles, we should welcome them, because we're out here to change hearts and minds by proselytizing to people about our politics. And so, when they agree with us, that should be celebrated.
That being said, you want to make sure that it's genuine as well. I know a lot of grassroots think that Mitt Romney is a giant flip- flopper. A lot of people think that Newt Gingrich is a big flip- flopper.
I'm more concerned about some of the things personally for me that Mitt Romney has done while he was governor of Massachusetts. And those things weigh heavily on my mind as I look towards who I'm going to vote for.
BLITZER: It sounds to me, Terry, like you're more convinced that Mitt Romney would be a more formidable challenger to President Obama than Newt Gingrich.
HOLT: Well, he's certainly run a very focused and very disciplined campaign. He presents a positive outlook on the world.
And generally speaking, Republicans unite behind that. And we need somebody that we can unite behind.
I fully understand that this is Newt's turn in the spotlight to be the alternative to Mr. Romney. But in this case, again, we have to vet him just like we fully vetted Mitt Romney.
And it's a difficult process, but at the end of the day, it's really about us putting our best candidate forward. Ultimately, I think that both of them are very conservative, conservative enough to get elected in this 2012 election season.
BLITZER: And I'll be speaking tomorrow --
LOESCH: One last -- BLITZER: Dana, we've got to go right now.
BLITZER: I just want to remind our viewers, Newt Gingrich is going to be here, Rick Perry. I'll speak to both of them tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Guys, we'll take a quick break.
Jack Cafferty when we come back.
BLITZER: Jack's back with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Now that Herman Cain's out of the race, who else should drop out?
Tanya writes, "Now that Mr. Cain has come to his senses, by his choice or otherwise, it's time that others do the same. America needs to get to the real task of looking at the remaining GOP candidates who are viable and have something to offer the country and not the other way around. To this end, it is now time for Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum to step down and out."
Brad in Portland, Oregon, "I think they should all drop out except Michele Bachmann. She'll be very entertaining when she tries to debate Obama."
Bob writes, "I think the country would be able to survive if Obama dropped out."
Rick in Florida, "I guess first Jon Huntsman. He can't raise money and he isn't out of single digits. Rick Santorum, our faith savior, he must like touring the United States on someone else's dime. And lastly, our $2 a gallon gas lady, Michele Bachmann. I think come January 3rd, she might get one of those migraines again."
Jen on Facebook writes, "Donald Trump."
Jim writes, "If you have an 'R' next to your name, you ought to drop out."
Dave says, "All of them, except Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. The Republican Party has become so bizarre, it isn't even a caricature of itself anymore. It's a frightening thing to be a real Republican these days. I know. I am one."
And M. writes, "What, and end the sideshow? We've got 11 months of great comedy coming up."
If you want to read more on the subject, go to my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jack. See you tomorrow.
A renowned chorus breaks into song with a medley of tweets. Jeanne Moos is next.
BLITZER: It was an awkward moment -- you just saw it there -- just a little while ago up on Capitol Hill. The Capitol Christmas tree, they lit it. The Speaker of the House lit it, and then all of a sudden, it goes dark. They lost power, obviously, up at the Christmas tree, and that's why it's dark. You see the beautiful shot of the Capitol dome afterwards.
But it's lit now. Just for a few minutes, but the Grinch got his hands on that Christmas tree for a few minutes. Power is back. And if you're visiting Washington, you'll see that Christmas tree.
We'll try to get a shot for you of what it looks like right now.
But meanwhile, Twitter is giving a philharmonic chorus in Canada something to sing about this holiday season, along with some new tips for staying warm.
Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Imagine your pathetic little tweet sung by a majestic 120-member chorus.
CALGARY PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA CHORUS (singing): Till you fell the heat.
TIMOTHY SHANTZ, CHORUS MASTER: We decided to ask people to tweet about how to stay warm in a Calgary winter.
MOOS: The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus sang those tweeted tips to one of the most melodramatic pieces of music ever, "O Fortuna."
CALGARY PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA CHORUS (singing): Try hot yoga! Or a nose hat! Or black silk long underwear!
MOOS (on camera): Do people actually put their clothes in the dryer to warm them up before they go out?
SHANTZ: Of course.
CALGARY PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA CHORUS (singing): Clothes in the dryer! Set the timer! Hop into a warm outfit.
MOOS (voice-over): The chorus did this to promote the Canadian city of Calgary. It's not first time "O Fortuna" has gotten new lyrics.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP (singing): It's a big ad for Carlton Draught! It's just so freak-ing huge! MOOS: The beer might help to wash down one of the most popular tweets sung by the Calgary chorus.
CALGARY PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA CHORUS (singing): Gravy action on my cheese
MOOS (on camera): Some of the tweets require translation from a Canadian.
SHANTZ: It's a French-Canadian delicacy of fries with cheese on top, and then gravy on top of that.
MOOS (voice-over): Tweeted tips on how to stay warm are nice, but someone posted, "They should do this with Kanye West or Snooki tweets."
Well, Kanye West has already been done on Jimmy Kimmel's show.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Can we please toast to the mother (EXPLETIVE DELETED) bags?
Fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on.
MOOS: So are Snooki's tweets.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Love my tattoos! I'm a bad (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Today is so a cuddle day.
MOOS: Even Sarah Palin has had her tweets performed by William Shatner on Conan's old show.
WILLIAM SHATNER, ACTOR: But consistent rain reminds us, no rain, no rainbow.
MOOS: Delivered soulfully, almost any tweet will have you --
MOOS: Jeanne Moos --
CALGARY PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA CHORUS (singing): Gravy action on my cheese.
MOOS: -- CNN --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): French fries are the devil.
MOOS: -- New York.
BLITZER: We leave you with a beautiful shot. There it is, the Capitol Christmas tree. It is well lit right now. It went out for a few minutes, fortunately. It's a beautiful sight here in Washington.
And that's it for me. Thank for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
The news continues next on CNN.